Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Visiting writer Lydia Davis comes to Whitman

Credit: Hubanks
Credit: Hubanks

As the Visiting Writers series began its second event this year, English department students and faculty alike awaited the arrival of literary figure Lydia Davis. Renowned for her short stories, the influential author and professor read excerpts from her work in Kimball Auditorium on Monday, Nov. 2.

Assistant Professor of English Scott Elliott first encountered the work of Lydia Davis as a graduate student and has since been a fan of her work , appreciating her as a fellow writer and instructor.

“It’s difficult to categorize what she’s up to in the fiction she writes,” Elliott said. “Are they prose poems? Are they works of fiction? Are they essays? It’s in this in-between space, and that’s one of the things that’s really fascinating about her work.”

Junior Graham Toben is currently studying Davis’s work in Elliott’s intermediate fiction course, and anticipated gaining a more complete understanding of her stories and creative process.

“Many of Lydia Davis’s works are defined by her brevity, and that every word is specifically placed to achieve the desired effect,” Toben said several days before the lecture. “I’m really excited to hear those words come to life: I’m hoping that her reading [them] aloud will bring out the nuances of the stories and also their humor. I’m also really looking forward to hearing her perspective on the process of writing the short story.”

Davis’s presence afforded students and professors the opportunity to inquire deeper into the person behind the fictions and the nature of her connection to her stories. Elliott discussed a few of his own questions for the author.

“I’m curious about the connection between her translation and her writing of original fiction and what kinds of links she makes between those two activities,” Elliot said. “I also have some questions about how close her work is to her own experience, but the pieces are satisfying enough by themselves that I won’t press those concerns too far. Many of the pieces, while seemingly very personal, whether to the author or to her narrator, achieve a kind of universal significance.”

Davis herself provided a sampling of insight into her inspiration and creative process. Speaking through e-mail, she addressed the question of what compels her to write.

“I am inspired to start a piece of writing because of an emotional connection with the subject,” Davis said. “I may be moved by the charm and patience of the cows across the road here where I live, or angered and amused by a form letter I get in the mail, or I may miss one of my parents or my dog and see them in a new light and want to convey that. So it starts with an emotional connection, and then there is the absolute pleasure of writing: the game of putting a feeling or thought into words and rearranging them till I get it right.”

As she travels between cities and universities sharing her stories, Davis tries to keep a tranquil perspective and to carry herself evenly through these changing environments.

“I spend a lot of time waiting in airports and train stations: getting to know train-spotters: but I don’t mind that,” she said. “Hotels are sometimes strange: I might get treated to a nosy bed-and-breakfast landlady or smoke-impregnated carpets and furniture. Once, in Erie, Pa., my hotel was the accommodation for families visiting the adjoining indoor water-park and all day long there were kids in wet bathing suits running up and down the hallways. I was in my room trying to listen to a CD of medieval French songs. But as I say, things are usually pretty calm.”

Calm for her, perhaps. Lecture attendees were helpless against her understated, deadpan humor and her shocking, quirky, animated words. Laughter, gasps and rapt silence formed the soundtrack to her reading.

Next up in the Visiting Writers series is Jeff Encke, who will speak in Kimball Auditorium on Dec. 3.

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